world has but one soul.
What is Eco-Poetry?
My favourite verses and passages, the ones that I have
occasionally collected over the years, have finally led me to the idea of
writing this little essay. It is by no means a comprehensive, academic writing, a
“study”—rather, some poetic vision that I have constructed for myself and
would love to share with others. What I want to do is to convey the sacred
feeling of unity with nature expressed by different poets throughout the ages
and across the continents; a feeling that keeps us all together, irrespective of
nationalities, races, cultures, or religions. “The world has but one
soul”—these words of the great Goethe, taken as an epigraph, are now
echoing in the East and West with new vigour and hope; for never in history were
humans in such a vital need of spiritual unity.
Eco-poetry renders this unity to the world. It can be
best described as an intuitive attempt to harmonize oneself with the world, a
“talk with God,” enacted through nature. It is expressed in a multitude of
ways, such as poetry and literature, painting and art, philosophy and music, and
through many other spiritual “techniques,” which assist individuals to
develop spirituality and to overcome their daily routine of survival. To be more
precise, it is God who speaks to us through nature; and at such moments, when we
are becoming vaguely aware of his existence, we try to “respond” by
expressing our feelings through poetry. Such a “response” overrides our
personal or cultural differences and communicates in a universal language. This
is why we understand and love the poetical works of the great masters of yore,
who thrived in varied backgrounds, and hear them, as if they were addressing us
personally. Indeed, at that time, we hear the greatest of all poets.
Many of us do not believe in God. We may have our own
ideals or imaginations. Yet gradually, as a collective human consciousness
evolves, we may learn to recognize the chasm that separates us from the
universal well-being. Then, eco-poetry will come out from the abode of poets and
artists, and establish itself as a natural way of human behaviour: each
expression becoming spontaneous and beautiful. Life itself will ultimately
become poetry in its broadest sense.
The philosophies underlying eco-poetry find their
origins in time immemorial, when our forefathers, in Tagore’s words, “lived
their lives in this inconceivable glorious universe, departing with a sense of
wonder in their eyes and devotion still intact,” when “every touch of the
universe struck a chord in their heart-lute producing chanting melodies that
were always new.” Gradually, as
civilizations evolved, this feeling of wonder decayed and was substituted by
“rational” theories and religions. However, the repercussions of the old
unity with the world are still heard in many philosophies and spiritual ways,
particularly, in the philosophy of Zen Buddhism, which allows the possibility of
gradual or sudden “enlightenment,” i.e., purification of mind and
merging with all creation.
It was probably the Japanese, who developed Zen
philosophy that was created to induce the long-lost spontaneity and feeling of
beauty, who came closest to eco-poetry.
When you attain enlightenment, the borders between the
internal and external worlds vanish, and you experience “initial”
consciousness. Now, you are free, bound neither by your body nor thoughts. You
observe all things at once, without attachment to them, being imposed on
circumstances—not depending on them. Your nature is pure; thoughts come and
go, leaving no traces. This is called prajnya-samadhi in Sanskrit. This
is not an absentmindedness, as one might think; on the contrary, it is an
ultimate alertness, which we cannot experience in an ordinary state of
consciousness due to the impurities imposed by indryas (sensuous images
of the Psyche).
Although East and West have created different patterns
of eco-poetry throughout the ages, they join in some common “techniques”
that distinguish this type of poetry from the rest, namely: (1) feeling of
enchantment, (2) emphasis on spiritual, rather than sensuous, (3) simplicity and
spontaneity, (4) philosophical depth, (5) rhythm, “attuned” to eternity. To
master such qualities, many philosophical schools are offering their methods,
including physical and mental exercises (or practices), meditation, poetry,
painting, martial arts, etc. (e.g., Rinzai or Soto schools in Japan). In
shamanic cultures, special types of singing or dancing are practiced in order to
invoke spiritual communion. Even in our Western world, when we are doing
physical exercises, such as swimming or skiing, we can sometimes attain this
state of unconscious spontaneity and unity with creation. Even a walk in the
forest or observation of a work of art may induce this state of wholeness, or dhyana,
in some of us, who are especially receptive to beauty.
Patriarchs of Eco-Poetry
Eco-poetry originated apparently in ancient China, in
the Tan period (618-907), then reached its acme in Japanese haiku—extremely
short poems (17 syllables), destined to induce the feeling of sadness (sabi)
or beauty and mystery of the world. The masters of haiku intended to
catch, in T.S. Eliot’s words, “the interception of timeless with time…,”
a secret meaning of nature and human life. Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), a patriarch
of Zen-poetry, used sabi to “peep into non-being” by converging the
subject into nearly nothing:
a bare branch…
D.T. Suzuki comments on this haiku: “Here, there is
great Beyond in a still raven, sitting on a branch. All things emerge from the
mysterious abyss, and through each thing you can peep into it. No need to
compose a hundred-line poem to express a feeling born out of that piercing. Once
this feeling reaches its apogee, we hush, because no words can ever express it.
Even 17 syllables are too many. Japanese masters of Zen, in compliance with Tao,
are trying to express their feelings with as few words, or paint strokes,
as possible. When the expression is too rich, no place for suggestion is left.
In suggestion lays the mystery of Japanese art.”
The feeling of sabi impregnates the haiku—a constant
feeling of illusion of being, its fleetingness, and its beauty. All personal
attachments are removed, and that’s why the sadness is more akin to wisdom
than anguish. In other words, sabi is a union with “not-I.”
Basho bequeathed to his disciples, “Raise your heart!
After satori—the highest level of enlightenment, awakening—is
experienced, return to the mundane world.” Satori, says Suzuki, is
“like an everyday experience, only two inches above the ground.” The very
common things may lead to the enlightenment: a crab, crawling on a foot; raven,
hushed on a tree branch; splash of water caused by a frog’s leap. In the
instance of satori, the mind lightens, the soul is flung open to the
world, and all is seen in its uniqueness: flower in its flower-ness, tree in its
In contrast to Japanese, almost non-existent verse,
Walt Whitman (1819–1892), the great American poet, produces a torrent of
words, with a spontaneity not unlike Zen masters. He is not converging, but
rather expanding his poetry, having no limits, no norms. His Leaves of Grass
stands unrivalled in the expression of freedom and richness of being—a
masterpiece of eco-poetry created in the West. The inner rhythm of his verse is
being born out of the endless vistas that Whitman unfolds before us; the eternal
questions that he poses suggestively appeal to our consciousness, not unlike the
child said What
is grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
could I answer the child? I do not know what it is anymore than he.
guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of a hopeful green stuff woven.
I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
scented gift and a rememberancer designedly dropt,
the owner’s name some way in the corners, that we
see and remark, and say Whose?
“Song of Myself” (Leaves of Grass)
He reveres every creature on earth, every life
manifestation, and acknowledges their superiority over the artificial human
artifacts. The following lines, from the same poem, may well serve as a hymn to
all supporters of deep ecology:
believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,
the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and an egg of the wren,
tree-toad is a chef-d’œuvre for the highest,
the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
the cow crunching with depressed head surpasses any statue,
a mouse is a miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.
He does not despise humans, however. Whitman tracks
down all the pangs of evolution that ultimately resulted in man’s creation,
from times immemorial, and in this praise to a man and a woman, surprisingly, we
hear no arrogance based on human exclusiveness, as he asserts the innate kinship
existing between the universe and human beings:
have been the preparations for me,
and friendly the arms that have helped me.
ferried my cradle, rowing and rowing like cheerful boatmen,
room to me stars kept aside in their own rings,
sent influences to look after what was to hold me.
I was born out of my mother generations guided me,
embryo has never been torpid, nothing could overlay it.
it the nebula cohered it to an orb,
long slow strata piled to rest it on,
vegetables gave its sustenance,
sauroids transported it in their mouths and
it with care.
forces have been steadily employ’d to complete and delight me,
on this spot I stand with my robust soul.
of Myself” (Leaves of Grass)
I deliberately cited this long piece of Whitman to show
that his philosophy of unity between humans and the universe is quite opposed to
anthropocentrism, or even Christianity, both putting humans at the top of
A profound impact on eco-poetry in the world, and
particularly in Asia, has been made by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Indian
thinker, writer and musician. His legacy is enormous in terms of language
(Bengali), and the imagery and passion that he had for life. By overcoming the
constant struggle, he discovers life as God’s greatest gift of love. That is
why he says: “The greenness of the grass is the divine poetry, man’s form is
the God’s lyric.” Some of his chef-d’œuvres were written in perfect English and translated into
many languages, namely: Gitanjali (Song Offerings) (1912), The
Gardener (1913), Stray Birds, and other collections.
Let me quote some of his verses (masterly translated
from Bengali by Indu Dutt), which parallel Whitman’s idea of unity, as he
reverts directly to God:
I look round the world,
memory comes to my life:
seem to find in everything
union of you and me in limitless forms.
I have lingered in the abode of skies,
have forgotten much of it,
the light that twinkles from star to star,
and I must have swung together.
at the grass-covered quivering earth
the new light of the harvest month,
search my soul
the joy overwhelms my heart:
seem to know this unuttered speech.
the heart of the mute earth
emotion is ever alive.
this soil of teeming life,
and I must have spent endless time.
the golden light of autumn
have trembled on so many blades of grass.
… … … … … …
of years ago, when the first dawn
on this earth,
you not take the spark of the sun’s rays
weave it into my life?
knows how I came to be on that particular morn,
form you gave me, hidden from my knowledge
you ageless one, from time before memory,
have been moulding me anew throughout the ages.
by me ever, you shall remain with me always.
Tagore, who seeks more personal relations with God than
Whitman (an astonishing blend of Christianity and Upanishads!), still, according
to Buddhist tradition, feels the same empathy to every object and every
creature. He thus comments on his poem:
feel that from time before time, through strange forgotten conditions, I have
been evolved by Him, arriving at my present state of expression. The great
memory of those series of existences running through the universal strain,
sustained by Him, lies within me in unconsciousness. That is why I can feel an
old bond of unity with creepers and trees, birds and beasts of this world. That
is why this vastly mysterious and immense universe does not appear terrifying or
Tagore’s philosophy of religion is indeed universal;
for it encompasses the elements of all major world religions, such as Buddhism,
Hinduism, Christianity, Zen and Taoism. It is meant, in his words, “to realize
the relationship of perfect love between the Supreme Soul and the soul of all
Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832), the German poet, who,
undoubtedly, is the most “ecological” amongst European poets, and also the
most “scientific” in the Western sense. “I compare Earth”—he said on
account of his barometrical observations of the earth’s atmosphere—“with
an enormous living thing, which constantly inhales and exhales.”
He was just as unfathomed as the earth itself. His nature—as compared to
Basho, Whitman, Tagore—is pro-active, searching, creative. In social life he
did not recognize those demonic
laws that reign in the universe. He does not accept French revolution and
holds (generally speaking) a reactionary loyalist side. His motivation? Violence
is contrary to nature. The dispute on the origin of species meant much more to
him than social upheavals: “To know nature is to feel the divine breathing;
every scientific discovery is simultaneously a religious event.” The discord
between the knowledge and faith that beleaguers the heart of modern man was
unknown to Goethe: he was the first (and, probably, the last) man to succeed in
resolving this dichotomy: “I was always confident in that the world could not
have been sustained, were it not simple”—one of the profound insights of
Goethe. The simplicity of the world is a wondrous, mysterious, and divine thing:
“We all are strolling amongst mysteries; the highest that humans may attain in
apprehending the world is the feeling of wonder” (Erstaunen). This
affiliates him to the poets cited above. He also believed in immortality of
spirit, as a derivative of nature, since the latter is immortal: “Never, at no
circumstances, there may be annihilation of spiritual forces in nature; for
nature never wastes its treasures so thoughtlessly…”
A myriad of generations in the West were fascinated by
his scope of thought, and, of course, his major poem—Faust—becomes
the climax of all his strivings where he gives the long-awaited answer to
beleaguered humanity. Surprisingly, this answer is in striking harmony with
contemporary environmental movement (but, paradoxically, contradicts Goethe’s
social conformism!). His reference to “rotten mud” is, of course,
allegorical and relates to human vices. Here is the last monologue of Faust,
where we find two lines of Goethe’s “final wisdom”:
to the hills the slough ascends,
rotten mud is thick and stinking;
drain away this deadly stock
my concluding task!
will create a vast, new land
everyone could work unhindered,
herds and people will rejoice
heavens blossom in the wheat field.
yonder there the seas enrage
protective walls; we’ll mend
minute flaw, each small disorder.
am devoted to this thought!
years have not been spent in vain
I can see the final wisdom:
only worth a life on Earth—who perseveres each passing day
liberate the folks and land.
I would say:
ages would not have the strengths
wipe away my footsteps trodden.
this amazing moment,
have the blessing of the day.
of eco-poetry are contained in the creative work of many of the world’s poets.
We may notice a variety of directions, genres, and forms. Indeed, poetry is as
diverse as life itself; whence it derives the non-withering power and lively
interest. Goethe compared the history of civilization to a grandiose fugue, in
which each nation, by turns, has its own distinctive voice. To maintain the
beauty of this human symphony, each voice must have its own timbre and sound.
And we hear humble, almost Japanese, verses of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) and
pensive poems of Robert Frost (1874-1963); aphoristic poems of William Blake
(1757-1827) and lyrical poetry of William Wordsworth (1770-1850); mystic essays
of Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949) and deeply ecological verses of Fyodor
Tyutchev (1803-1873)—to name just a few of those classics who have intertwined
their colours and sounds into the universal fabric of eco-poetry. Many
indigenous cultures have cultivated their own eco-poets that the outside world
is simply unaware of; but despite difference in cultures, all eco-poets speak
the same language—and that is, of course, the universal language of nature, as
another Japanese master, Kobayasi Issa, once said:
aliens in this world!
all are brothers
the cherry blossom trees…
They will always be our teachers, our beacons in this
turbulent world, so there’s no reason to be downhearted, really.
Will Beauty Save the World?
What is beauty? Has it a universal measure? And what is
it that Dostoyevsky meant when he said “Beauty will save the world?” I think
eco-poetry, to some extent, answers these questions, and offers an opportunity
for humanity “to come to its senses.”
To begin with, beauty is not a human “invention”;
it exists already. It is a universal law that we are only now beginning to grasp
(for humanity is at its pre-mature stage). And it cannot be perceived through
mere contemplation, or logic, or language. I can only emphasize that it is the
wholeness that we lack. All cultural strivings collectively experienced are only
a bleak approximation to it; our self-willed, anthropocentric civilization has
created a synthetic beauty, expressing itself in artificial “things,” or
“products,” where limited “function” and “fashion” ousted the
primordial criteria of beauty. The aesthetics (and ethics) have been developed
during centuries; such ethics are essentially a human-centred bias. Even Oscar
Wilde, the genius artist with an exquisite mind, was very wary about nature and
perceived beauty only in inorganic materialism. We can readily see similar
trends today in the “beautification” of virtual reality and of cyberspace.
Having not understood nature, and, consequently, not seemingly capable of coping
with it, mankind has imagined itself into the type of world that we suppose we
may easily manipulate and tame.
Let’s hope, however, that humans are not altogether
insensitive creatures (for they are the product of nature, after all). Maybe an
impending ecological catastrophe, in one way or other, will remind us of the
poetry that we are all liable to lose.
is for the union of you and me
there is light in the sky.
is for the union of you and me
the earth is decked in dusky green.
is for the union of you and me
night sits motionless
the world in her arms;
appears opening the eastern door
sweet murmurs in her voice.
boat of hope sails along on the currents of
towards that union.
of the ages are being gathered together
its welcoming ritual.
R. Tagore’s Our Universe
Barret, W. (ed.) 1956. Suzuki, D.T. Zen Buddhism. Selected Writings.
Dutt, Indu (trans.) 1980. A Tagore Testament. Jaico Books.
Grigorieva, T. 1993. Born by Japan’s Beauty. Moscow: Iskusstvo
Murphy, F. (ed.) 1977. Walt Whitman. The Complete Poems. Penguin
St. John, Donald P.
1992. “Whitman’s Ecological Spirituality.” The Trumpeter: Vol. 9-3.
Sytin, I.D. (ed.) 1914. D.S. Merezhkovsky, Complete Writings, vol.
VII (Vetchnye Sputniki). Moscow (in Russian).
T.H. Johnson (ed.)
1955. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Tagore. R. 1980. Our Universe. (Indu Dutt trans). Jaico Books.
Ueda, M. 1970. Matsuo
Basho. New York, NY.
Viktor I. Postnikov is a researcher and poetry translator, born in St.
Petersburg, Russia (1949). After receiving PhD in Electrical Engineering
from Kiev Polytechnic, he worked extensively as a scientist and educator in
the energy field. Chernobyl, however, put an end to his technical career and
brought him into the environmentalist camp. He began translating authors of
spiritual dimensions, such as Whitman, Tagore, Basho. He also translates
Russian spiritual poetry into English. Now, his interests extend to deep
ecology and Eastern philosophies.
Dutt, Indu (trans.) 1980. A Tagore
Testament. Jaico Books.
After this essay had been completed, the
author had an opportunity to read the beautiful book on Buddhist
environmentalism Dharma Rain (Stephanie Kaza and Kenneth Kraft, eds.
Shambala 2000), which may serve as an example of merging Buddhist living
traditions with modern environmentalism.
Barret, W. (ed.) 1956. Suzuki, D.T. Zen
Buddhism. Selected Writings. New York.
Tao, or “The Way”—central
philosophical category of Taoism, meaning the axis of the Universe, the
dynamic balance between the extremes. Taoism is very wary about logical
discourse and hinges on the spontaneity of nature.
Murphy, F. (ed.) 1977. Walt Whitman. The
Complete Poems. Penguin Books.
riddles, used by Zen masters to enlighten the disciples.
Here and further, quotations from
Grigorieva, T. 1993. Born by Japan’s Beauty. Moscow: Iskusstvo. (in
Dutt, Indu (trans.) 1980. A Tagore
My translation from the Russian edition: Goethe,
J.W., Selected Works. 1950. Moscow.
From daimon—God, in specifically
Goethean, ancient sense.
My translation from the Russian edition: Goethe,
J.W., Selected Works. 1950. Moscow.